User-centered startup = Design thinking + Lean

Two schools of thought that have risen to prominence in the startup world are Design Thinking and Lean. Both promise to help you find better product solutions, but they take you on different routes to get there. In this post I highlight both approaches and propose that if you want to run a user-centered startup you need to use both: a Design thinking + Lean combo.

Design thinking

Design thinking can be summarized simply as empathize, ideate, test, and repeat.

You start by taking time to get to know your potential customers. You interview them, shadow them, and try to “walk a mile in their shoes”, so to speak. Then you use the knowledge you gained to then ideate over possible solutions.

Ideation is a way of looking at a challenge with a solutions based lens. Instead of focussing on the problem, like you might do with a scientific method, you instead focus on the goal or solution. You describe the solution in a “divergent way” meaning you come up with as many different solutions to the problem as you can. Then you study your ideas, keep the components that work and throw away the ones that don’t. You ultimately arrive at a new solution that builds a bridge between the ideal future and the problematic present.

Then you test your proposed solution. You try to discover all the things that are right about your solution, and all the things that are wrong. In the process of testing you gain more empathy for your potential customers and learn more about the problem. You are ready to ideate again.


On the other side, we have Lean. Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, defines a Lean organization as one that (1) tests their vision continuously, and (2) constantly adapts and adjusts as needed. The Lean process looks like this:

  1. Articulate your vision in the form of a hypothesis
  2. Build a minimum-viable product (MVP)
  3. Test it
  4. Create a new hypothesis based on results
  5. Repeat

Ries claims that this is a strategy uniquely suited to help entrepreneurs, because startups operate with too much uncertainty for the “plan, strategy, and market research” approaches big organizations can take. By taking an experimental approach, you will quickly build a more thorough and accurate knowledge of who your customers are and what they really need.

Design thinking + Lean = User-centered startup

Design thinking ensures that no potential solution is overlooked. By ideating and proposing ideas in a divergent way you can quickly generate a large number of potential solutions. Each of those potential solutions can be evaluated and used to learn more about your potential customers.

Lean, on the other hand, takes a more systematic and experimental approach. Lean eliminates wasted time and effort, because you are only ever building just enough to conduct an experiment and test your hypotheses (aka. the MVP).

What happens if we were to combine Design Thinking and Lean? If we take the Design Thinking focus on empathy building and ideation, and combine it with the experimental process of Lean, we arrive at a process that looks like this:

  1. Empathize
  2. Ideate over hypotheses
  3. Pick a hypothesis to test
  4. Design an MVP
  5. Test the MVP
  6. Repeat

We start the process like we would any Design Thinking exercise. We take the time to build empathy and ensure that our proposed solutions are grounded in knowledge of who our future customers really are.

Then we move to the ideate phase. But instead of ideating over designs we ideate over hypotheses. A hypothesis, like a design, represents an idea of what you think users would like to do. However, unlike a proposed design, a hypothesis forces you to explicitly articulate what your theory of change is. That is, a hypothesis forces you to articulate (1) why users currently do what they do, and (2) what it would take for them to change.

The next phase is to pick one of the hypotheses to test. You should base this decision on the knowledge and empathy you gained in step 1 of the process. Once you have the hypothesis you want to test, you build the MVP, test it, and repeat the process again.

With each round you’ll gain more empathy and knowledge of your customers, and move closer to a more robust product. You’ll also be running a lean, yet user-centered, startup.

(Originally published on the User-Centered Startup blog)

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